It was recently the semi-annual begging week for our local NPR news station. (Though, to be accurate, it's more of a talk-and-occasional-news station anymore.) I always hate these times of year--both because they mess up my schedule and interfere with my ability to get the news I'm interested in, and also because after you've heard three or four of these things, the schtick really gets monotonous.
Truth in advertising: I used to be an NPR subscriber. I woke up to "Morning Edition" every morning and listened to it, either at home, on the way to work, or at work, until it ended. Then I switched over to the classical music station until it was time for "All Things Considered" to come on in the afternoon, which took me home. Mornings on the weekends meant at least some of the morning news shows, plus "Car Talk" and "Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me." At least in my younger days, Saturday afternoons meant the Metropolitan Opera, in season.
Now, however, I listen to roughly an hour of "Morning Edition" on weekdays, between the time my alarm goes off at 10 to 6 and the time I leave the house. I still catch "Car Talk" most weekends, and I listen to "Wait, Wait" pretty regularly. But that's about it. I stopped giving money to my local station probably about 10 years ago, when it became apparent that they were sliding more and more into the conservative, Fox News style of "journalism," and away from actual journalism of the kind that NPR had been justifiably proud of and for which it had been famous for years. At around the same time, the classical music station began cutting back on local programming--and has now gone completely to a satellite rebroadcast format. I've seen nothing in the intervening decade to induce me to go back to being a subscriber.
We can start with the local coverage. For all intents and purposes, there isn't any. And when there is, it's almost exclusively about Rockford. If this station wants to be "my" public radio station, then it needs to do a much better job of covering "my" neighborhood.
Then there's the trend toward less and less actual news. I'll grant you that it's difficult to do an all-news format on the radio, but even during the "news" time, I'm hearing more and more promos for other shows, more and more sponsorship spots, and far more fluffy-feel-good stories than I like. I don't listen to NPR for sports news: and that's a good thing, because if I did, I'd have a hell of a time keeping up. And when they are broadcasting actual sports news, I usually don't want to hear it, since it involves sporting events that are on satellite delay or which I've recorded on my TiVo to watch later, and consequently I don't actually want to know who won or how they turned out until I have a chance to watch for myself."
But what's worst, in my opinion, is the obvious conservative bias that's grown at NPR over the last ten years, and the trend toward "balancing" coverage instead of accurate coverage. Case in point: a recent diary at Big Orange took a look at the number of times experts from the American Enterprise Institute had appeared on NPR over the last six years:
Based on the information from NPR's web page, 70 of the 86 people currently listed as scholars at AEI have had air time on NPR over the last eight years. If you omit the people who were either members of the Bush administration, or elected officials you still have 63 AEI pundits got attention from NPR. Not only that, but 16 of them made over a dozen appearances. In total, they got their say on public radio over 600 times over that period.
On my own motion, I did a comparable check on the experts from the Center for American Progress. Since CAP was not founded until 2003, that may not have been as good a choice, but bear with me. CAP lists a total of 84 experts on its website. Of those 84, 48 (or 57%) have never appeared on NPR even once from 1996 to the present. Thirty-six had, and they had racked up between them a total of 484 appearances over that time frame. Only eight of those individuals had appeared 10 times or more--and most of those eight were appearing as official spokespersons for government agencies, campaigns, or other policy bodies. Only John Podesta, the group's founder, had made more than a hundred appearances--but during the 13 years in question, he had also served as White House chief of staff under President Clinton and, more recently, as head of Barack Obama's transition team. I didn't bother trying to quantify, but I suspect that most of his 111 appearances on NPR had more to do with either of those latter two roles than with his being any kind of a policy wonk. A quick spot-check of some of the more than 200 experts listed at the Brookings Institution (which was founded in 1916) found a similarly minuscule number of appearances on what is often alleged (probably by those who've never listened to it) to be America's most liberal news outlet.
One of the perennial themes during the begging weeks is the alleged quality and depth of the news that listeners get from NPR. I think it would be far more accurate to say that NPR these days is the least crappy of a bunch of seriously crappy options. That does not, however, equal actual quality for the most part. The heyday of NPR as a purveyor of accurate, in-depth news coverage seems to be far behind them. I hear far less in-depth analysis than I either want to or used to. These days, "analysis" usually means that they've brought in some talking head to spout off the usual cocktail-party clichés and the same tired old conventional wisdom from inside the Beltway. (Which is what you would expect, when they describe both Cokie Roberts and Juan Williams as "senior news analysts." Neither one strikes me as having the ability to analyze his/her way out of a wet paper bag--even if you handed them a running chain saw and pushed them in the right direction.)
One of the highlights of NPR is their coverage of the Supreme Court. Yet when a question came up on Jeopardy! a while back about the name of NPR's Supreme Court reporter, I couldn't come up with the name (it's Nina Totenberg, by the way). I suspect that might have something to do with the fact that she's yet to appear on "Morning Edition" for the 20th time so far this year--and that most of her 18 appearances haven't had anything to do with the Supreme Court. (I counted six stories about cases or decisions, and didn't include speculation on whom Obama might pick if one or more justices decided to retire, or the slew of stories about Justice Ginsburg's pancreatic cancer.)
What I'm hearing more and more of, though, is the same tired old horse-race kind of story that I grew thoroughly disgusted with during the two years of our last presidential campaign. Those "stories" boil down to little more than a sound byte or two from each side, followed by a very brief opportunity for representatives from both sides to attempt to argue for their interpretation. That isn't even good political reporting, and the model works even less well outside of something as subjective as politics.No, what I want in news reporting is accuracy. I want to hear what the facts of the matter are--not what some flack (Republican, Democratic, other) wishes the facts were, or what spin said flack wants to put on the facts. I don't want idle speculation, and I certainly don't need to hear a response or a rebuttal when neither response nor rebuttal is possible. Yet I continue to hear Republicans coming on NPR to carp about this or that policy of the Obama administration--and, strangely, no one ever stops to call them on any of their more obvious idiocies and blatant attempts at spinning away inconvenient realities. If NPR were providing that quality, in-depth journalism that they assure me will be mine if I will only cough up some dough, the Republicans wouldn't get away with crap like bloviating on how much Obama is blowing up the deficit without ever being asked to explain their complete silence on the deficit during the eight years of the Bush administration during which they and their colleagues at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue ran up the biggest deficits in history--and tanked the economy so bad that President Obama will be lucky if he can cut the size of the deficit in half in his first term, as he's promised to try to do.
Balance, in news coverage, is useless. Accuracy is everything. I would like for NPR to be the interview that everybody dreads--but nobody is willing to skip. And until I can routinely count on NPR for exactly what it claims to give me--accurate, in-depth reporting on the important developments of the day--they can forget about getting a dime out of me. If I should be fortunate enough to discover a better source for news than NPR, you can bet that I'll be switching to it.